We’ve said it so many times:
This week is the real test.
Each week, we unpacked Michigan’s win with a footnote that the game wasn’t the test we thought it would be. Until the Wolverines went to East Lansing.
The game’s importance had been touted all week. It would be the in-state rivals’ first top 10 matchup since 1964. A win for either team would create a new measuring stick for success and cement conference — and even national — championship potential.
Through the first half, it looked like coach Jim Harbaugh would clinch the biggest win of his Michigan career. Then, the Wolverines hemorrhaged a 16-point third quarter lead, and the visions of a championship season got a little dimmer.
After the game, Harbaugh sat dejected at the podium with little to say.
“That didn’t go the way we wanted (it) to,” he said.
Once again, facing its toughest competition, Michigan failed to deliver.
Now, all eyes turn towards Penn State, when we will learn if this team truly is different from the past.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Michigan knows how to win. It’s come up in big moments, built up its passing game when its run game is stopped and constructed an efficient two-quarterback system out of a starter that’s largely considered to be just “good enough.”
In each consecutive game this season, it’s looked like the Wolverines have added another dimension to their offense, staying true to a rush-centered strategy anchored by Corum and Haskins while exploring the other weapons in their arsenal.
On Saturday, that dynamic, top 10 team made uncharacteristic mistakes. It wasn’t so much that it was simply bested but that its miscues accumulated. Michigan wasn’t playing at it’s best. Now it’s about how it responds.
“This season’s not over,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis said after Saturday’s game. “Not even close.”
Yes, the season isn’t over. The Wolverines have four more games left, but two — against the Nittany Lions and Ohio State — will be among their toughest of the season. Theoretically, Michigan could finish with a record of 11-1 with a shot at the College Football Playoff. Or it could be 8-4 with an appearance at an insignificant bowl game.
If history is any indicator, it’ll be closer to the latter. Last season, an initial 49-24 win against No. 21 Minnesota inflated fans expectations. But after a loss to the Spartans the following week, the Wolverines never recovered and ended the season 2-4. The year before, a string of midseason Big Ten wins buoyed their hopes only to be dashed in back-to-back blowouts against Ohio State and Alabama. In 2018, Michigan beat its first eight conference opponents, still to lose to the Buckeyes and Florida.
Yes, this team can win, but can it recover from a loss?
“It’s a learning experience,” Vastardis said.
Maybe it will be. Players and coaches have continually repeated the mantra that this Michigan team is different. And they’ve backed those assertions. This Michigan team looked different when, facing mediocre preseason expectations, it beat Washington. It looked different when it beat Wisconsin on the road. It looked different when it came out ahead in a fourth quarter dogfight against Nebraska.
As the Wolverines rose in the rankings, so did the stakes. Fans that originally would have been satisfied with an 8-4 season are looking, realistically, at a floor of 9-3.
But, if this Michigan team is different, it won’t be because of a 7-0 run. It’ll be because it learns how to recover.
Managing Sports Editor Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KizziahLane